Three days that shamed the world

The Oscar-nominated film teaching young Bosnian Serbs about the Srebrenica massacre


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Six years ago at the Cannes Film Festival, the Bosnian film director Jasmila Žbanic´ pitched a storyline for Quo Vadis, Aida?, a movie about the Srebrenica genocide. Žbanic´, a Bosnian who’d grown up during the siege of Sarajevo and graduated from the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts, had already made several award-winning films. She was thought of as a stirring young talent. However, the producers were not impressed. 

“They fell asleep,” Žbanic´ says drily. “Maybe it was too hot in the South of France. Maybe there were too many parties at Cannes. Or maybe the time just wasn’t right to talk about Srebrenica.” The film industry is not sleeping any more. It took Žbanic´ years of efffort to get financing, but now Quo Vadis, Aida? is shortlisted for both the Baftas and for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. For a female Bosnian director, it’s a remarkable achievement. Particularly as it’s not so long since a civil war ripped her country pieces, climaxing in the genocide at Srebrenica. 

“I have the feeling the time is right,” says Žbanic´, who today lives between Sarajevo and Berlin. “Srebrenica has so many levels, mostly political, but I chose to go with a personal story. I wanted the audience to feel for 103 minutes what it was like to be there. Maybe that will change the understanding of what genocide really means.”

Serb leaders have apologised for what they call the “crime” of Srebrenica. But they still refuse to call it a genocide

Quo Vadis, Aida? is the story of a United Nations interpreter, Aida, trying to save her husband and two sons after the Bosnian Serb Army overran the town in July 1995. Aida, a former teacher and a Muslim, is caught between her role as a UN official — having to translate the words of the men who eventually murder her family and friends — and a frightened mother and wife. Her UN bosses refuse to help. 

Meanwhile thousands of terrified Bosnian Muslims crowd outside the UN compound, pleading for their lives to be saved. But it becomes clear that no one in the international community is coming to help.

During the three days the film portrays, memories float back to Aida of a gentler time before the war began in 1992 — parties, friends, home. As the Serbs enter the town, killing and destroying, we see Aida’s disbelief give way to horror and finally, a numbing deadness. She knows she will lose her family forever. The city falls, the UN abandons the people, and the Serbs round up the men and boys — some dressed like girls by their mothers to hide them — and take them to meet their fate. 

Jasna Đuričić as Aida

It is a powerful work, haunting, beautifully filmed, and mesmerically acted by a husband and wife team, ironically both Serbs, who play Aida and General Ratko Mladic´, aka the Butcher of Bosnia. But most of all, it is a terrible indictment of the failure of the UN to protect a civilian population who were under their protection. Srebrenica was one of the Bosnian towns designated in those war years as a “safe area”.

When the city fell, the Dutch UN battalion — far outnumbered by the Bosnian Serb forces — were unable to get air support to drive the Bosnian Serbs away. The colossal mistakes the UN made were the result of a bureaucratic muddle — those needed to give permission at the highest level for air strikes were either on vacation or out to lunch. The Dutch commanders were told to appease the Serbs.

In one terrible scene, Aida pounds on the door of the office of a Dutch commander, Colonel Thom Karremans, begging him to do something.

“Colonel, they are killing people outside,” she says softly, still believing in the power of the UN.

Karremans — who did try to reach the necessary people back at UN HQ but was fobbed off — is in shock. He tells Aida to go away and leave him alone. It is then she realises that Srebrenica is doomed.

Some women are still waiting for their sons, their husbands and their brothers to come home

Those last seconds before the men were gunned down were horrific. I often imagine the terror and confusion they must have felt in their final moments on earth. They were then buried in mass graves, some of them separated in pieces in primary, secondary and tertiary graves. This was so the future forensic investigators would not be able to identify their remains — that is how strategic the Serbs were. They knew, even then, they were committing a war crime.

The memorial for the victims of Srebrenica is at Potocˇari, the site of the former UN battalion. There are close to 7,000 victims buried, the work of an extraordinary international organisation, the International Committee of Missing Persons (ICMP), which hunted down the bones for decades.

The memorial is a testament to the failure of the international community. It is one of the most disturbing memorials I have ever seen. For years, I would return to Bosnia to attend the 11 July commemorations, shocked to see Serbs on the hills throwing rocks at the grieving mourners beneath the hills. 

More than a quarter of a century after the events, Srebrenica is still nowhere near healed. The formerly Muslim-majority town, is now 55 per cent Serb, and the mayor, Mladen Grujicˇic´, is a Serbian nationalist. Grujicˇic´ claims that Srebrenica’s Serbs face discrimination, and denies that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague has ever proved the massacre was genocide. “It is an imposed story and it will fall sometime. No Serb and [few] Bosniaks living here believe in the Hague farce. Bosniaks who say that there was no genocide are even declared insane,” he says.

Žbanic´ wants more than acceptance. She hopes the film will reach an audience who were too young to remember what happened in Bosnia. She wants to try to shed light on the current move towards “genocide denial” in Srebrenica, where the definition of what happened is hotly contested. “The sooner they see it, the sooner they will be healed,” she says. 

Her premiere was held in Potocˇari and she invited Serb journalists and young students. One of the most powerful moments for her was when a 17-year old Serb raised his hand in tears, saying he had no idea this had happened. 

“For me this was the most beautiful thing,” Žbanic´ says. “This was a boy raised in a place where he was bombarded constantly — school, church, family — about how Muslims are ‘the others’, how this genocide never happened. And after so much, his head and heart were able to cry.”

Another young Serb woman wrote to Žbanic´: “I always knew that the official narrative we have is wrong, and thank you for your film which told me what it is.”

More than a quarter of a century after the events, Srebrenica is still nowhere near healed 

The director sees this as hope, but she also is mindful of recent events that deny the massacre. In 2019, Peter Handke, an Austrian novelist well known for his outspoken support of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloševic´, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. For those who had witnessed, lived through or survived the war crimes committed in Bosnia, it was a terrible resolution. The Bosnian German author Saša Stanišic´ called it a “blank denial of history” that the crimes took place. The Bosnian/American author Sasha Hemon called Handke’s work “a literary project whose value should dissolve like a body in acid before the magnitude of crimes its author repeatedly denied and thus endorsed”.

Then came the book My War Criminal by an American academic, Jessica Stern, an odd project which was deeply hurtful to many victims of war crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs. Stern set out to write a psychological profile of Radovan Karadžic´, the psychiatrist-poet leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Whilst visiting him in prison at The Hague she admittedly fell under his “hypnotic” spell: “I had forgotten how tall Karadžic´ is, how good-looking,” she marvels, calling him a “Byronic figure.” The result is a book that is less an indictment for a war that left more than 250,000 people dead and a country in ruins and more of a twisted tribute to a psychopath.

Still the debate over the wording of the Srebrenica slaughter continues — massacre versus genocide. In 2004, in a unanimous ruling on the case of Prosecutor v. Krstic´, the ICTY Appeals Chamber in The Hague ruled that the massacre of the enclave’s male inhabitants constituted genocide, a crime under international law. Three years later, the ruling was upheld by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Serb leaders have apologised for what they call the “crime” of Srebrenica. But they still refuse to call it a genocide. 

There are women I’ve met in the deep forested villages and mountain towns near Srebrenica who were driven out of their homes in those terrible days. Some of them are still waiting for their sons, their husbands and their brothers to come home. They don’t believe they are really dead because they’ve never found their remains.

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